State prison nurse says workers preparing to leave over vaccine mandate

Aug 23, 2021, 3:42 PM | Updated: Aug 24, 2021, 11:24 am
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A nurse at a state prison says the Department of Corrections could be in for a rude awakening in October when those unwilling to get the COVID-19 vaccine will have to leave their jobs.

Rebekah Zabel, who works as a nurse at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, said based on conversations she has had with her colleagues, at least 20-25% of the nurses at the facility plan to walk away from their jobs rather than get the vaccine — herself included.

“I know for a fact there are at least six to seven full-time employees who absolutely, bottom-line, will not take this vaccine,” she said.

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The Department of Corrections told KIRO Radio that, in total, around 32 nurses work at Coyote Ridge, but did not give any numbers of how many may be leaving.

“They kind of downplayed it as, ‘Oh, we expected to lose one or two employees,’ … but there are many more than they want you to think that are in solidarity,” Zabel said.

Some state prison guards are also unhappy with the mandate. At a recent rally, Zabel said 32 (or 8%) of the prison’s total 415 corrections officers walked out to protest the vaccine mandate.

She pointed out that both corrections officers and nurses are positions that take months or years of training, respectively, so it is not as though new people could be trained from scratch between now and October. Zabel especially wonders where the state will find replacements for her and her nursing colleagues at a time when emergency rooms are shutting down due to a lack of medical staff.

“In my personal opinion, they tried to make me feel like, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal, you’re replaceable.’ … Where are these employees coming from?” Zabel asked. “Because there is already such a national health care shortage.”

Zabel says she gets recruiting offers from other states on a daily basis and is ready to move — she has already started applying for a nursing license and jobs in states like Texas and Florida.

“I’ll personally flip burgers before I will take this vaccine,” Zabel said.

The Department of Corrections declined an interview and gave the same answer to three of KIRO Radio’s four written questions about prison staffing and potential contingency plans.

“At this time DOC is working in coordination with State HR to determine appropriate steps and measures in the event of any impacts as a result of the direction,” the department said in an email. “While this is still in the early stages of development and it is unknown if this will be a necessary step, DOC has handled similar job shortages previously due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is in a position to be able to enact a rapid hire process if necessary to fill shortages.”

The rapid hire process expedites the hiring and training period for new corrections officers, condensing it to just a month.

The department did not describe a similar plan for recruiting health workers, and did not specify how security and inmate health care would be maintained in the interim if there is a gap in workers.

CDC: How COVID-19 vaccines work

As of Aug. 17, the Washington State Department of Health reports that 71.5% of the eligible population (ages 12+) in the state had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Find a location to get vaccinated here.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 357 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been distributed across the United State as of Aug. 16, 2021.

FDA grants full approval to two-dose Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

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State prison nurse says workers preparing to leave over vaccine mandate